Friday 17 February 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 1: Holt Pound

It's the morning of 23 August 1791. In the field behind this gate, George Finch, the ninth Earl of Winchilsea, has been dismissed hit wicket for four while batting for Surrey against Hampshire. His opening partner Charles Anguish is out for nought. Harbord, the number three, goes for a duck too, and Louch at number four manages nine. Two of the three Walker brothers, Tommy and Harry, fall quickly, for nought and two. By the side of the pitch, among the crowds, William Beldham, 25 years old and perhaps already the greatest batsman in the land, awaits his turn. He's down at number eleven, the last man in.

The bowling is underarm, each over consists of four deliveries. On Holt Pound's rudimentary wicket, staying in is hard, making runs harder. When he gets to the crease, Billy Beldham scores nine in the first innings and 17 in the second - and Surrey win by 17 runs. In the first-class season of 1791, Billy finishes with 532 runs, the most in England and almost 150 more than anyone else. Despite being run out for a duck in the second innings and completing a pair, George Finch is third with 345.

Billy came from Wrecclesham, a hillside village to the south of Farnham and a community that was said to spend its sundays 'in scenes of profanity and vice', drinking and gambling on games of marbles and pitch-and-toss, no doubt a terrifying sight to the metropolitan elite. William was a handsome country lad, tall and with long fair hair that won him the nickname 'Silver Billy'. He lived in Yew Tree Cottage on The Street, Wrecclesham's main thoroughfair, a winding strip that boasted five pubs along it and another three nearby. The Holt Pound ground lay behind one of those, an establishment currently known as the Forest Inn, at the top of Wrecclesham hill.

The Forest Inn, glimpsed from the far side of the ground

In the spring of 1791, Lord Stawel, the ranger of Alice Holt forest and the captain of Farnham Cricket Club, had employed Billy and his brother John to create a newer, more permanent ground behind the pub to cash in on the growing interest in cricket. Land in the forest was being cleared to produce wood for the Royal Navy, and the arena that  Billy and John produced was described by Charles Grover in his book My Native Village: 'It was banked and level and free to all parties, and as the game is considered a most manly one, all classes engaged in it most extensively.  At this time few counties or towns could cope with Farnham and more particularly the little village of Wrecclesham, which could boast some of the most clever and celebrated at the game, as well as one of the best grounds. Matches would often last three or four days and when there, would assemble thousands of spectators, and carriages very numerous'.

Silver Billy's vision

Billy was schooled in the game by Harry Hall, a gingerbread maker from Farnham, and the Walker brothers of Churt - Harry Walker is usually credited with creating the cut shot. Farnham were a powerhouse of a team, and Billy debuted in their first recorded match, on the field he'd turn into Holt Pound, on 13 August 1782. They played Odiham, and Billy Beldham was 16 years old. Between that debut and the summer of 1791, Billy became a giant, one of the first men to play forward with a high front elbow, a style that demanded a new shape of bat and a response from bewildered bowlers.

George Finch first saw him play when Billy scored 43 for Farnham against Hambledon in 1784, and the following Spring visited him in Wrecclesham with an offer to become his patron. From then on, and for the rest of his playing career, Billy earned good money from cricket, and what's more, invented the notion of batting as something beautiful, an aesthetic pleasure. He made the batsman, rather than the bowler, the lone existential hero of the game.

John Nyren, son of the great yeoman Richard, landlord of the Bat and Ball at Broadhalfpenny Down, and from whom we know most of what we know, would write of Silver Billy in his pomp: 'It was a study for Phidias to see Beldham rise to strike, the grandeur of the attitude, the settled composure of the look, the piercing lightning of the eye, the rapid glance of the bat, were electrical. Men's hearts throbbed within them, their cheeks turned pale and red. Michael Angelo [sic] should have painted him...'

Imagine it's a sightscreen...

Billy struck one of the first hundreds on Thomas Lord's ground at Dorset Square, and appeared in both of the other first-class games played on Holt Pound, Surrey's two famous wins over Lord Frederick Beauclerk's All England side in 1808 and 1809 - turning out for Surrey in the first and England in the second. It's easy to imagine how he felt, a boy from nowhere who drew thronging crowds and the patronage of lords to the ground outside of his village, setting men's hearts athrob as he went...

Billy wasn't the only shaping force to appear at Holt Pound. George Finch, ninth Earl of Winchilsea, began playing at the age of 33 and thereafter 'would go anywhere for a game of cricket'. His bat was reputed to weigh 4lbs 2oz, which perhaps contributed to his erratic form. It was away from the pitch that his presence was felt. He was a founder of MCC, the club that would soon become the focus of the game, and he offered Thomas Lord the patronage that helped him construct Dorset Square, shifting cricket from country to city.

The lane beside Holt Pound

To find Holt Pound today, drive through Wrecclesham, past Yew Tree Cottage, which still stands on the Street, and on up the hill, where you'll pass a garden centre and a sawmill and then cross the border from Surrey back into Hampshire before you reach the Forest Inn, and the tumbledown little laneway beside it that leads to the ground. It's a prosaic place now, administered by Binstead council, a bare and unloved field with just a dog-walkers' track across the middle. Farnham left it behind after 1851 for their existing ground on Folly Hill, and save for a brief revival after the first World War, Billy's oval at Holt Pound receded into history, unknown now to the cars that fly by on the A325.

There should be a blue plaque, at least, if you could bolt one to the gate...

A view from the middle

We'll return to the story of Silver Billy when we visit Tilford, but next in the series it's Hartley Wintney, for a meeting with a demon bowler who Billy often battled, and the oddball Lord who seized hold of the Laws of the game...


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